4 affordable guitar amp combos for the road (£373-£665)
Gagging to start gigging? Then you’ll need a serious guitar amp. Here are four mid-price, roadworthy amplifiers that’ll take you all the way to Wembley…
You wouldn’t go to war with a water pistol. You wouldn’t take a tennis ball to a test match. And unless you want to be eaten alive by the mob, you wouldn’t pitch up on the modern club circuit with your trusty five-watt ‘Bedsit Baby’ practice amp.
With album sales down, but live music booming, the fledgling rock band of 2010 spends far more time on the motorway than kicking back at Abbey Road, meaning that a serious amp with gig-friendly features should be at the top of your shopping list.
For this round-up, we're rolling out the big guns. Of course, they’ve all got a bit of grunt, but with most serious live venues supplying a PA, that wasn’t our only consideration.
Instead of going for the predictable quartet of stacks, then, we’ve picked out four big-brand combos that will hopefully meet the other key demands of the travelling guitarist; tone that will seduce the sceptics, features we can get to work in the dark, cabinets that will keep rocking when the lager starts to fly, change from £1000…
First choice was the Marshall MA50C (£548), with an all-valve format that makes our palms sweat just thinking about it. Kirk Hammett’s signature solid-state Randall KH75 (£373) starts the test as the dark horse, while Peavey’s Vypyr Tube 120 (£645) would have us believe that it’s big and clever. Bringing up the rear, the ‘F’ word is back, with Fender’s valve-powered Deluxe VM amp (£665) facing a battle to justify its hefty outlay. Testing, testing, 1-2-3…
First up: Randall KH75 price and spec
Randall KH75 specifications
Type: Solid-state combo
Output: 75 watts
Speaker: 1 x 12” Celestion
Controls: Channel, dual EQ, volume, gain select, gain x 2, contour, reverb,
Connections: In, speaker out, FX loop, CD in, footswitch (included), phones
Dimensions: (H x W x D): 545 x 780 x 353mm
Next: Randall KH75 review
Randall KH75 review
Yeah, we know: valves rule. But a solid-state Randall amp was good enough for Dimebag Darrell, and now it’s good enough for Kirk Hammett’s signature series, with the tube-free, wallet-friendly KH75 promising us all the blood and thunder of Death Magnetic.
The only sticking point is that Kirk doesn’t actually play one himself, preferring to luxuriate with the all-tube RM100KH stack. Hmm.
At £373, you can’t expect the finery of Kirk’s head (no plug-in preamp modules here). Instead, we’ve got a loud, tough and straightforward combo that’s a little dull until you fire it up. Clean has never been Randall’s strong suit, and while it’s decent, this channel is where you’ll miss the valves most; it just doesn’t respond like the others.
All is good when you switch to the dark side, though, with dual gain stages giving you: a) the thrashy crunch of Kirk’s rhythm parts; and b) the brittle menace of his lead, bringing authenticity to your versions of Metallica’s riffs.
Next: Randall KH75 verdict
Randall KH75 verdict
Contrary to popular belief, solid-state doesn't mean ‘lame’; this sort of amp is just aimed at a different type of player. The KH75 might not be your dream choice for the studio but it’s perfect for the road, pumping out enough power to hit the back wall, delivering two watertight metal tones and soaking up more abuse than its pampered valve-powered rivals into the bargain.
And if you’re a young metaller gigging your way up the greasy pole, you might argue that nothing else matters.
4 out of 5
Pros: Exceptional value, versatile gain.
Cons: Doesn’t respond like valves.
Buy: Randall KH75 is currently available from Thomann
Peavey Vypyr Tube 120 specifications
Type: Hybrid combo
Output: 120 watts
Speaker: 2 x 12” custom speakers
Effects: 24 amp models, 22 effects, looper, 12 presets
Controls: Amp, FX, gain, EQ, volume, tap tempo
Connections: Input, USB, CD in, speaker out, footswitch
Dimensions: (H x W x D) 500 x 660 x 280mm
Peavey Vypyr Tube 120 review
Amp snobs get confused by the Vypyr. They clock the amp sims, rack effects, stompbox mimicry and onboard looper, and dismiss it as another modelling amp for toilet circuit cover bands. Then they spin it around, spot the genuine 6L6 power tubes ablaze in the back, and start to drool uncontrollably. A digital front end with a valve power section - there’s an idea.
First impression of the Vypyr: it’s a riot. The presets make it easy to get rocking, but there’s also scope to tweak parameters, save bespoke sounds, set up a rhythm loop and jam along to it (though to get the most from it, you’ll need £145 for the Sanpera II footswitch).
Second impression: it’s loud, pumping an earth-shaking 120 watts through twin speakers. Peavey doesn’t specify what amps/effects are modelled, but you don’t have to be a detective. Are they totally faithful to the originals? If you’re a gear anorak, you might say ‘not quite’, but the man in the moshpit won’t question them.
Peavey Vypyr Tube 120 verdict
By the time you’ve got the amp and footswitch, the Vypyr is nudging a grand. It’s serious money, and players who know what sound they’re after might do better committing to a more specialist amp.
But for bread and butter giggers who don’t want a ‘trademark’ tone on the road, this amp is well worth the wedge.
4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, ace features, great tone.
Cons: Expensive, jack of all trades.
Fender Deluxe VM specifications
Type: Valve combo
Output: 40 watts
Speaker: 1 x 12” Celestion
Effects: Reverb, chorus, vibrato, delay
Valves: 2 x 12AX7, 2 x 6L6
Controls: Channel, dual volume, EQ, FX, delay/chorus/reverb controls
Sockets: In, speaker out, FX loop, footswitch
Dimensions: (H x W x D) 428 x 612 x 236mm
Next: Fender Deluxe VM review
Fender Deluxe VM review
Even if you could find a ’65 Blackface Deluxe, you'd be dreading the damage it might be caused every time your Transit goes over a pothole. Best to investigate Fender’s ‘Vintage Modified’ model, which fuses all-tube innards with a fistful of digital effects. Fender sees it as the “perfect grab-and-go rig for club dates and weekend jams.” Guess they haven’t tried lifting it…
Mindful of Keith Richards’ advice that Fender amps complement Fender guitars, we strapped on a Tele and was blown sideways by the class of the clean channel. If you’ve ever questioned the fuss that surrounds valves, five minutes immersed in this rich, shimmering, responsive tone will make you a card-carrying convert, especially if you add a twist of the glorious reverb.
Apart from chorus (still too '80s-sounding, we’re afraid) the effects are top-quality and go some way to justify the round-ups highest price tag. But while the overdrive channel is magic for moderate rock, it doesn’t quite match the warmth and whisky breath of the Marshall.
Next: Fender Deluxe VM verdict
Fender Deluxe VM verdict
Every amp here has its strengths, and the Deluxe VM comes within a whisker of snatching gold with a clean channel that makes you sound like a star, a small bag of top-drawer effects, and the second-best gain channel in town.
There’s nothing to criticise here apart from in relative terms, and for that reason, it gets the full five stars.
5 out of 5
Pros: Mind-blowing clean channel.
Cons: Most expensive in the test.
Marshall MA50C specifications
Type: Valve combo
Output: 50 watts
Speaker: 1 x 12” speaker
Valves: 3 x ECC83, 2 x EL34
Controls: Channel, dual EQ, boost, gain, crunch balance, reverb, resonance, presence, power, standby
Sockets: In, speaker out, FX out, footswitch
Dimensions: (H x W x D) 510 x 635 x 270mm
Next: Marshall MA50C review
Marshall MA50C review
Godfather of Loud, Jim Marshall, could just build stacks for rock’s glitterati, but he hasn’t forgotten the little man, envisaging the MA Series as “simple, roadworthy, all-valve amps for budget-conscious guitarists." The MA50C combo is built in Vietnam to save costs, while retaining the classic dual-channel format.
You can always tell a great valve amp: it has zilch features. Aside from boost, reverb and resonance/presence dials, the MA50C is stripped of fripperies and trades off its tone. Tested clean with a humbucker guitar, it has a punchy, full-body sparkle.
But the overdrive channel is where it excels; the pairing of ECC83/EL34 valves gives a classic roar that’s warm and ragged, and maintains searing clarity for solos, especially with the boost. The key difference between valve and solid-state is that here, the tone comes from your hands, with the MA50C bringing mood to your playing.
Next: Marshall MA50C verdict
Marshall MA50C verdict
An all-valve Marshall is a schoolboy fantasy, and the MA50C makes it flesh. The Peavey is cleverer, the Randall costs less, and the Fender has the superior clean channel, but this is the perfect choice for firing out Zeppelin riffs and bottom-heavy blues.
The only criticism? Marshall’s claims of ‘modern metal’ aren’t quite delivered on; if you want to sound like Slipknot, you might need to try an additional overdrive pedal.
5 out of 5
Pros: Classic Marshall gain, great value.
Cons: Distortion could be heavier.
Liked this? Now read: 12 best amps for heavy metal and Guitar basics video: how to use your amp
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